Visiting Vindolanda

By Alex Mullen

A view of the Roman fort of Vindolanda in the evening

I think Vindolanda has to be one of my favourite places. Several things combine in that special part of Northumberland: spectacular countryside, phenomenal archaeology, and wonderful people.

Some of the most recently found tablets
Anna, Alex and Alex Meyer working closely with some artefacts

Anna Willi and I were lucky enough to spend the last week at the Roman fort, staying with views of the fort walls from our bedroom windows and just a few metres from the excellent Vindolanda Museum. As always I learnt so much on our visit and saw some fabulous material. Most intriguing were the ancient puffballs which look to the untrained eye like the finds of Roman leather!

We were there primarily for a meeting of the Vindolanda tablets group – a team of around a dozen colleagues which meets twice a year in person and whose raison d’être is to pursue research on the hundreds of precious wooden writing tablets and stylus tablets from the site and to disseminate this knowledge. Our work is never completed of course, because, excitingly, new finds come out of the anaerobic layers of the excavations pretty regularly.

Possible evidence of shackles

One of the week’s jobs was to assess the recent finds and in particular to take detailed images with a macro-lens of the most promising of the stylus tablets which we think may offer a new type of evidence for slavery at Vindolanda. It’s a grim subject and as part of drawing together material for the article we are preparing we are also studying the evidence of shackles. It was an unsettling experience trying to work out what size of neck might fit. We also explored the site for possible locations for the containment of slaves and/or prisoners.

Little and large styluses
Seal boxes

Anna Willi took on a much more cheery task as she set about assessing the evidence for literacy and related activities at Vindolanda by matching hundreds of styluses, ink-pen nibs, wax spatulae, ink pots and seal boxes (amongst others) to their contexts with our colleague from Canada Alex Meyer (Western University). There’s a lot of work still to be done but it was a huge pleasure for Anna to have boxes of fabulous material on her desk to examine. The most cooed over object was a beautiful seal-box with enamelled flowers, but she really enjoyed finding some tiny styluses too. For more on writing equipment, Anna’s ebook is a great place to start:

Alex Meyer and Anna hard at work
Anna checking 100s of styluses

I took the opportunity to autopsy an inscribed stone that Alex Meyer, Joonas Vanhala (Turku University, Finland) and I are about to publish in the journal Britannia. Up until last week I’d only seen it via numerous images, scans and drawings. It was good to reassure ourselves that we didn’t need to add anything to our analysis. A blog about the carved stone is available here and it is about to be ‘unveiled’ in the case of new finds in the museum. It’s quite a rude one.

The main event, the meeting of the tablets group itself, was really enjoyable: we agreed on a publication strategy, received updates on the conservation and display of the tablets, found out about the work at the British Museum as part of the Writing History project which is looking at the wood, inks and wax used, and heard about the new excavations at Magna, a fort close to Vindolanda, which begin this summer. We can’t wait to find out whether there are more writing tablets there too – perhaps even with links to Vindolanda!

Huge thanks as always to Andy and Barbara Birley and all the staff at Vindolanda.

The Girl with the Bronze Stylus

A guest blog by Josy Luginbühl

LatinNow relies on brilliant researchers around Europe for its collaborative work. In this blog, Josy Luginbühl (University of Bern, Switzerland) tells us about her fascinating PhD research on writing equipment in female graves. Her data forms part of our set on Roman-period literacy which will be made available in a webGIS later this year.

Whether you are reading this blog on the train, at your desk or in your dentist’s waiting area, take a look at the objects around you: which of your belongings do you think represent you best as a person? Your favourite shirt? A certain book? Perhaps a reusable coffee cup, or your iPhone? And would you choose to take them to your grave? What may seem like a strange question to us today was quite normal in Antiquity. Grave goods were carefully selected and accompanied the deceased on their last journey. Depending on the social status, they could include tableware and cutlery, elements of clothing, tools and weapons.

Reconstruction of the mid-first century CE ‘Doctor’s Grave’ at Stanway, UK, as displayed at Colchester Museum. The grave goods include a board game and surgical tools. © David Gill

As was pointed out by Janie in her recent blog about stationery, some people were buried with their writing equipment. Let’s for example have a look at the grave of a man from Roman Noviomagus, today Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He was buried around 90/95 CE with his spears and his shield and with a variety of writing implements: two styli, two wax spatulas, an inkwell and a ruler. In addition, there were numerous vessels made of valuable materials. He was probably a local aristocrat with a higher function in the local military camp. The connection between literacy and the military is well known and has been emphasised frequently: being able to read and write would have been an advantage for a military career and probably effectively a requirement for higher officers.

Perhaps more surprising is a grave from the second half of the second century CE from Aquileia (Italy). It contained a perfume bottle, a jewellery box, a fig, three chestnuts, four dates and four leaves, all made of amber, two hairpins and a distaff made of bone, as well as two bronze styli. The inscription on the corresponding sarcophagus tells us that this is the burial of Antestia Marciana, who died at the age of 12 and was buried by her loving parents. Small figurines such as the fruits were often given to children as lucky charms and dedicated to the gods when they reached adulthood. For girls this happened mostly on the eve of their wedding, as this event marked their passage from girl to woman. That the figurines were still in Marciana’s possession indicates that she was not married yet. While they are frequent grave goods for girls, the two bronze styli are remarkable because the written sources do not tell us much about the education or literacy of young girls.

Contents of Antestia Marciana’s grave, drawing by the author after Brusin 1937, 191 fig. 1.

While in modern Europe it would be unusual to be buried with a pen or a smartphone, writing equipment had a specific value in Roman antiquity. As an element of Roman culture, it was put in the graves of deceased individuals in the entire Latin-speaking West, and, as seen above, not only for men but also women and children. This fact was the basis of my doctoral thesis. I collected graves with writing equipment in Western Europe, that is the Latin-speaking part of the Roman empire (well, part of it, as Northern Africa was not included in my study). By analysing associated grave goods, the skeletal remains and the geographical and chronological pattern, I aimed to better understand who was in contact with literacy or aspired to an ideal of education. Our ideas of Roman literacy and education are mostly formed by the written sources and a focus on the city of Rome, and often the spotlight is on the male world. An analysis of burials with evidence related to literacy widens the focus and provides insights into life in the provinces and a social environment that is not imperatively the senatorial aristocracy.

Map of female burials with styli as grave goods, map by the author.

Would you believe that there are more female burials with writing equipment than there are male?! This is not what we would expect from reading the written sources. They rather link literacy to the army, the (provincial) administration, trade or leisure of the upper classes – and to the male part of society. While women did not obviously play an active role in the military or administrative service, they were nonetheless part of this social environment, for example through their husband’s occupation or the location of their family home. The distribution pattern for female and male graves shows an emphasis on these spheres. Many graves with writing equipment are from military sites that are part of the limes (the frontier zone in the Germanies) or at least nearby. Others are from administration centres or situated next to important roads.

Only rarely have writing media such as (fragments of) papyrus scrolls or wax writing tablets survived in graves. Much more common are the actual writing implements, such as a stylus, inkwell or wax spatula. It is not always possible to say beyond doubt whether the buried person was actually able to write themselves, and if so, at what level. Sometimes, short inscriptions on grave goods, like a name scratched into a ceramic cup, suggest some degree of literacy of the deceased or a person close to them. Labelling one’s possession is not only useful in a modern flat share…

Graffito from a burial at Stanway, UK (c. 35–45/50 CE), possibly reflecting very early literacy in restricted contexts in the latest phase of the Iron Age. From Sealey (2007), 309.

But even without clear proof for actual literacy, the selection of grave goods shows that this ability, or in a broader sense education, was an important and desirable ideal. This ideal is not only visible in the grave goods (and therefore no longer on display after the burial ceremony) but, as Anna has shown in her Halloween-blog, was sometimes part of the commemoration of the deceased for eternity on sarcophagi and tombstones, too!

Close-up on the upper left part of the front face of the so-called Portonaccio sarcophagus decorated with scenes of battles between Romans, Sarmatians and Germans carved in marble. On the right hand side is a girl writing onto a tablet. Roman work, 180-190 AD from the vicinity of Via Tiburtina – Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome).

Further Reading:

Brusin, G. (1937). ‘Regione X (Venetia et Histria). III. Aquileia. Ritrovamenti occasionali.’ Notizie degli scavi di antichità, 190–196.

Fünfschilling, S. (2012). ‘Schreibgeräte und Schreibzubehör aus Augusta Raurica. Mit einem Beitrag von C. Ebnöther.’ JberAugst 33, 163–236. <[Schreibger%C3%A4t_Augusta_Raurica].pdf> (09.06.2022)

Koster, A. (2013). The Cemetery of Noviomagus and the Wealthy Burials of the Municipal Elite. Nijmegen.

Luginbühl, J. (2017). ‘Salve Domina. Hinweise auf lesende und schreibende Frauen im Römischen Reich.’ HASBonline 22, 49–72, <> (09.06.2022)

Martin-Kilcher, S. (2000). ‘Mors immatura in the Roman world. A Mirror of Society and Tradition’, in: Pearce, J., Millett, M. and Struck, M. (eds), Burial, Society and Context in the Roman World. Oxford, 63–77.

Sealey, P. R. (2007). ‘The graffiti from Chamber BF6’, in: Crummy, N., Shimmin, D., Crummy, P., Rigby, V. and Benfield, S. F. (eds), Stanway: an Elite Burial Site at Camulodunum. London, 307–314. <> (13.06.2022)

A Bouquet of Freshly-Sharpened Styluses

By Janie Masséglia

There is a wonderful podcast for those who find it hard to sleep called Nothing Much Happens, where the soft-voiced author talks about pleasingly cosy things until you drop off – making coffee, working in the allotment, closing up at a bookshop. I love the series and have found the episodes all very soothing – all except one, about preparing stationery for the new school year. By the end of it, my heart was pounding in my chest as I was wide awake, too excited to sleep. And why was this? Because I love stationery. Nora Ephron knew what she was doing when she had Joe Fox offer his mystery penpal a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils. Do you, dear reader, have fond memories of WH Smiths in late August? Did you spend half an hour choosing the right hardback notebook from Paperchase to be your teenage journal? Do you now have to pretend it’s your children who make you go into Smiggle?

I make these confessions because I’ve just been watching a draft of Anna Willi and Alex Mullen’s terrific new short film on Roman writing equipment. If you’ve ever wondered what tools the Romans used to write, and what they wrote on, this is for you:

What really struck me during Alex and Anna’s conversation were the kinds of associations a Roman might have had with writing and writing equipment: ancient images of individuals with writing equipment convey messages about status, education, literacy, and even, specifically, the ability to understand Latin since in some provinces, the art of writing and Latin Language were intertwined. These implications of writing equipment were so positive than some people were buried with it, while others had it depicted on their funerary markers:

Relief from a scribe’s tomb found in Flavia Solva. Universalmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria. Photo: Hermann Muck. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

This got me thinking about the associations of writing material today. Stationery isn’t something many people ask to be buried with (although I’d certainly consider it), and it’s not a strong theme in adult self-representation. Posing with notebooks and pens is not a mainstream choice for selfies.

Instead, stationery seems now to carry two potent associations and to be aimed (in marketing terms) at three distinct demographics: the first is the association with creativity. Perhaps the most visible group of users are school children, with greater apparent emphasis on girls. The marketplace is awash with pens, pencils, rubbers, pencil cases, notebooks and folders aimed at school children who are encouraged to prioritise writing by hand, and old enough to have an opinion about how they want to express their identity. The second group of “creative” stationery users prioritised in modern marketing are artists, using pens and paper as their preferred medium for illustration rather than text.

The second association is with an old-world sophistication. Fountain pens in particular, have taken on a special connotation as “special” writing implements, packaged and priced like lifestyle accessories such as expensive watches or jewellery. Here, the use of the pen seems to take on a more symbolic meaning: it adds formality and gravitas to the process of signing contracts, cards and letters. Likewise, the hidebound notebook has become a statement of vintage charm and expense in the age of the mobile phone and laptop. We all know people who love stationery, especially in the academic community. One of my undergraduate recently pointed to my own pen and whispered “Cool. Old school.”  I hadn’t realised that my leaky, plastic, short-cartridge fountain pen could be seen as intentional retro styling.

Why is stationery now a niche interest among adults? Perhaps the presumption that everyone is literate precludes the need to prove it. Perhaps the rise of the keyboard has made stationery look out-dated. Perhaps the age distinction between those who write by hand and those who use a keyboard has, in effect, rendered cheap, practical stationery “kid’s stuff” for many people. In any event, the significance of stationery isn’t what it was… ahem… 30 years ago, and certainly not what it was 2000 years ago. Just because an object looks familiar, doesn’t mean it has the same social meaning. Join Anna and Alex to find out more!

If you’ve not already seen our open access ebook on the subject, do take a look at Anna’s magnificent work in full.  

Dead man writing

By Anna Willi

Do we think that the Roman dead might be perceptive to a message from the living today? Because I think some of them may be interested in this…

Fig. 1: Can anyone else hear the opening theme of HBO’s ‘Rome’? Roman mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 109982, Wikimedia Commons).

It has always struck me how much the Romans thought of their dead as being part of their living world, and how they included them in that living world by honouring their memory through rituals. You may have heard that the dead were fed milk and wine on certain days of the year, sometimes through holes or pipes in their graves. You may also know, and have chuckled at, Ovid’s description of night-time bean throwing to appease unfriendly spirits that appeared during the Roman version of Halloween, the festival of the Lemuria in May (Ovid, Fasti, 5.421ff.). You may even have raised an eyebrow or two in appreciation of the trusts that were set up to guarantee the maintenance of burials and yearly gifts to the dead in eternity (see e.g. CIL III 703 from Philippi, Macedonia). The perhaps most touching result of this interactive approach to the afterlife is the way in which the Roman dead seem to talk to us from their grave, through the inscriptions on their tombstones: ‘stop here, traveller, and read about me and my life!’ (see e.g. CIL XIII 7070 from Mainz, Germania superior, where the deceased laments that he was killed by a slave).

It was very important to the Romans that their memory was kept alive, and inscriptions and imagery on funerary monuments was used to express or shape this memory. I think of depictions on funerary monuments as a kind of iconographic blurb about the deceased, one that was also ‘legible’ for those that were unable to read. In most cases, there was little space for images and the scenes and items featured must have been chosen carefully. Interestingly, some of the dead seemingly wanted to tell us: ‘look, I had writing equipment!’

Fig. 2: A ghostly appearance: drawing of a fresco in the tomb of the aedile C. Vestorius Priscus in Pompeii showing him as he enters a room with lots of writing equipment in it (from G. Spano, La tomba dell’edile C. Vestorio Prisco in Pompei, Atti della reale accademia d’Italia. Memorie della classe die scienze morali e storiche, ser. VII vol. III.6, 1943, 237–315).

This week I attended an online conference at the University of Pécs, Hungary, that was all about the depiction of writing equipment on Roman funerary monuments (check out their ‘Scroll in Hand’ project here). Funerary depictions of writing equipment are particularly well (but not exclusively) known from the Danube provinces and the Greek East. Writing tablets, scrolls and writing sets containing pens and inkwells are particularly common, and they are sometimes shown on their own and sometimes in use. This is great news for us researchers working on Roman everyday writing because it gives the objects we know through archaeological finds some context and we can learn a lot from such depictions about how these objects may have been used (e.g., no tables, and no quills either!). But can we also learn something about the significance of writing for the representation of the dead?

Sometimes there is a clear professional connection, for example when people are shown or described as teachers or as accountants (this applies to both men and women), or if they were officials or magistrates who would have dealt with a lot of ‘paper’-work. But in some cases, the inscription does not mention the deceased’s occupation, or no inscription is preserved at all. In such cases it is difficult to know if writing equipment was in fact used by the deceased during their life time, or whether its depiction had a symbolic function. Literacy and writing represented education but also more generally social and professional status. The symbolic function can be even more abstract, with a scroll representing a legal document or act such as the manumission of a slave and thus the free status of the person shown holding it.

Fig. 3: A relief from Maria Saal (Austria) showing a man holding a writing set tucked under his left arm while writing on his knee, his foot resting on scrinium, a bucket for storing and transporting scrolls (© Ortolf Harl /

Where detailed writing sets or individual writing implements are shown, or where people are shown in the act of writing, we can at least assume that it somehow related to the identity of the deceased. It was clearly important to them, whether they were literate or not, whether they used writing for their occupation or not. It was so important that they wanted to be remembered as writing in eternity. It has not been an eternity yet, but I think those writing dead men and women would be pleased to know that we’ve seen their writing equipment – and took a long hard look at it, too!

Scribing and shaving: a close encounter with Roman wax tablets

By Anna Willi

As academics, every now and then we get confronted with just how much we live in our own little world, and how easy it is to forget to look beyond its limits. I had one of these moments earlier this month, when I was tagged in a tweet and found myself staring at a tool that got me excited. The tweet was by Roy Lawson (@RAeliusVictor) who had just made a number of brilliant replicas of Roman writing tablets for us (Fig. 1). But let us go back to the beginning of the story.

Fig. 1: Roy’s replica tablets arrive at the office of LatinNow’s scribe. © Anna Willi

In autumn 2019, LatinNow travelled Europe with the Touring Exhibition ‘Voces Populi’. Our senior scientist Janie Masséglia had designed a number of wonderful outreach activities for the tour and we let school children have a go at inscribing wax tablet replicas with styli. More than a year later, when Janie was working on the production of the first volume of our Manual of Roman Everyday Writing (open access here:, she stumbled over a passage I had written that described how the eraser ends of styli were used to ‘flatten’ the wax where corrections to the text were to be made. During the Touring Exhibition she had discovered that flattening was almost impossible with the kind of erasers commonly found on metal styli, which are shaped like small spatulas (Fig. 2). Instead, she resorted to removing a thin curl of wax, ‘like a parmesan shaving’, as she put it. This remark led me to reconsider in some detail just how wax tablets were erased, and to a series of delightfully nerdy Skype sessions with graduate student and stylus specialist Alessia Colombo (a short article on what we found out is due to be published in Instrumentum later this year). But while writing up my thoughts, I realised that I needed to get my hand on a replica and try myself.

Fig. 2: Examples of Roman iron (top) and bone styli with typical erasers (not to scale), redrawn by A. Willi after Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012, 349, 395, Gosten?nik 1996, 111 and Fingerlin 1998, no. 1337.24 (for full references see the LatinNow Manual (link above). © LatinNow

This is where the SSHRC comes in. The SSHRC is Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and last year they awarded a grant to an exciting new project on wax tablets led by Dr Alex Meyer (Western University, Ontario), and on which our own PI, Alex Mullen, is a co-investigator. The Alexes are exploring new ways to decipher Roman wax tablets with imaging technology, and because the originals are fragile and difficult to move from museums, they needed inscribed replica tablets as test objects. I was happy to act as LatinNow’s scribe in return for the opportunity to experiment with erasing techniques. I got myself a stylus and a spatula and sent a wish-list of specifications to Roy Lawson, who was willing to produce the tablets for me to inscribe. In the process I also asked him about their production, sharing my thoughts about styli and the erasing process. And while I was experimenting with the replicas (there is something to be said here about using a toddler’s wooden xylophone stick as a replica bone stylus eraser!), inscribing and reinscribing them with the first verses of the Metamorphoses and happily piling up heaps of wax shavings, Roy tweeted an image and tagged me in it.

Fig. 3: The photo tweeted by Roy (@RaeliusVictor). © Roy Lawson.

Looking at it on the small screen of my phone I first thought the Lego legionaries were carrying a Roman stylus. Point, shaft and spatulate end were all there, and even the size was right, but something seemed off. Since the tweet did not provide an explanation, I asked Roy what the object is and he uses it for. As it turns out, this tool is a scribe or scriber, made of hardened steel and used by engineers and metalworkers for scribing, i.e. making marks on metal; similar tools are also used by jewellers, for example. As Roy explained to me in an email, he uses it on all kinds of materials: ‘I use the point for marking on almost everything, it produces a fine constant line. The flat end is very useful for marking out fine cuts in wood, it helps locate the saw or chisel.’

I was very happy when I learned about this tool. I love how many tools look similar throughout time. But more importantly, ever since I researched Roman styli for our Manual, I had a hunch that writing may not have been the primary function for all Roman styli finds, as is often assumed, particularly in case of heavier, bulkier examples or those found in areas that can be interpreted as workshops. Roman styli were not made of steel like Roy’s scriber. The majority were made of iron, more delicate examples also of copper-alloy, and apart from the earlier bone styli we can assume that wooden versions were also used. But a good iron tip would have been useful to make marks into many surfaces from softer metals to wood and plaster for example.

Writing implements are often seen as very specific instruments that were used in the fairly restricted context of literacy. The case of the scriber shows that we may have to be more open to multiple uses for any given shape of tool, and the further implication is that we need to be cautious when using finds of writing equipment as a proxy for literacy. There is still a lot of work to be done on styli and the practicalities of Roman everyday writing, and a lot is clearly to be gained for this kind of research from experimental archaeology – and from venturing beyond the academic world.

‘Iulius went to Rome and all I got was this pen’: Anna talks Roman souvenirs in Switzerland

By Anna Willi

At the end of January, I joined researchers from all over Switzerland at the ‘Rencontre épigraphique’ or ‘Epigraphikertreffen’. The annual event brings together researchers who work with inscriptions, be it at Universities or with regional archaeological authorities. It’s a meeting place for new and ongoing project reports, discussing controversial interpretations and showcasing new finds and difficult readings.

anna Willi - blog 1

I wanted to take part because Switzerland has amazing and well-published evidence for my research on Latin literacy in Germania superior, particularly writing equipment and non-monumental inscriptions. It was a great opportunity to chat to the epigraphists and archaeologists who work on the relevant sites, to expand my network, to revive old contacts and to introduce LatinNow to the audience!

The topic of my talk was based on inscriptions on writing equipment and my starting point was a very cool inscribed stylus that was found during the Bloomberg excavations in London (read MOLA’s blog here). It bears a witty inscription – the longest on a stylus yet – that reveals it is a souvenir, probably brought to Britannia from Rome (transl. R. Tomlin for MOLA):


‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point that you may remember me. I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give) as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’

In my talk I gave an overview of Roman writing equipment (mainly styli and inkwells) with inscriptions, to see not just how the Ab urbe-stylus fits in, but also to ask what we can say about the content of the inscriptions, the people who used the objects and what inscribed writing equipment can contribute to our research on literacy. The answers to all of these questions will – I hope – be given in my forthcoming article, but I can say this much: it turns out the Ab urbe-stylus is rather unique!

The vast majority of inscriptions on writing equipment are proprietors’ or makers’ marks and contain not much more than a name, if that. However, there are a number of objects with longer inscriptions, mainly elaborately decorated copper-alloy styli that all seem to be similar in style. They were probably made as gifts. The inscriptions are of amorous or friendly nature, address intellectual topics or have Christian messages. Most of them were found on the continent (Gaul/the Germanies) and date to the 2nd–3rd centuries AD or later.

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Some of the replica ink wells and styli from LatinNow’s VOCES POPVLI collection

The Ab urbe-stylus is the only one with a touristic inscription. What is more, with its simple iron design, its early date (around 70 AD) and having been found in Britain it is very different from the other inscribed styli. While the later styli may represent a certain fashion or trend, it is possible that the Ab urbe-stylus was a singular and spontaneous creation.

Whoever had it inscribed in Rome, I like to imagine their smirk as they came up with the text – and that of their colleague, friend or family member who received the gift in Londinium.

LatinNow gets a helping hand from Cherwell School Students

From 8th-12th October, the Centre for the Study of Ancient Document in Oxford (HQ of the LatinNow Project) played host to two Year 11 students from the Cherwell School, with us as part of their Work Experience placements.  In this guest blog, Charlotte W and Finlay HC dish the dirt on what it’s really like to work in the LatinNow office…

Charlotte writes…

“I didn’t really know what to expect from a week’s work experience at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. As a fifteen-year-old, you hear many terrifying rumours of what life was like before the internet. What I definitely didn’t expect was to be asked to help contribute to LatinNow, a huge EU-funded project investigating the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces, or to help document original artefacts from Nottingham University Museum for the LatinNow exhibition around Europe, including over 2000 year old coins and pottery sherds!

It was amazing to see these relics from our ancient past up-close and to  begin to explore some of the stories they held. Dr Francesca Cotugno was kind enough to explain one of these objects, a replica of the tombstone of a Marcus Caelius, and I was very surprised to learn what a gruesome story it unlocked.

The story goes (and I hope I get this right…) that a German hostage of the Romans named Arminius managed to deceive everyone that he was loyal to the Romans. He gained Varus’s trust, a man highly respected by the Roman senate, then deliberately led him and the 3 Roman legions he commanded into a trap where they were slaughtered mercilessly by Germanic tribes. When the emperor Augustus found out about what happened he was so distraught, as Rome had never suffered a defeat like this ever before, he banged his head the wall shouting “Give me back my legions!”. Arminius was then killed by his own Germanic people as they decided the act he committed went too far and was too ruthless.

Tombstone of Varus, who died in AD 9 at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in Germania. 

This tombstone to Marcus Caelius is unusual as it explicitly says that he died in the Varian war. We don’t know much about his role in the war, but we know from his representation that he was a decorated soldier who must have been relatively wealthy as he is flanked by his freedmen.

I also, in the documenting process, came in contact (with gloves!) with several replicas of iron age coins. In the pictures we took, you can’t see exactly how small the coins were but they were tiny, smaller than a penny. And they were so intricately embossed.

Coinage was introduced  to Britain during the Iron age and inscribed coins . Earlier coins mostly just had symbolic animals on them so therefore if there appeared to be writing you could tell it was from a later time. There were also much bigger and chunkier coins from the Roman period, (these were originals so I was constantly holding my breath when getting them out of the bags) which had the name and carving of the Roman Emperors on them. I hope in the pictures you can see how ornate they all are and can get a sense of how incredible it was see things that have been used by our ancient ancestors.

So coming out the other end of this week, I’m relieved to report that Classics is not just some musty dusty academia for elderly scholars, I’ve found it to be entirely different. It’s exciting and very interesting for curious minds, and even though at the beginning of the week I didn’t have a clue what I was going into, I have really enjoyed myself. So thank you LatinNow!


Finlay writes:

 “On Monday the 8th of October I arrived at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents for work experience. In large part this involved looking at ancient writing equipment for the LatinNow Project. As part of this project to study the Latinization of the North-Western Roman Empire team is using ancient writing equipment as a means of demonstrating how Latin spread throughout Gaul (present day France and Belgium), the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal), the Germanias and Britannia (present day Germany and Britain).

For the most part, my work involved summarising the data from British archaeological sites where Roman writing equipment had been found. The hope was to show to what extent Latin had caught on in Britain and compare it the rest of Roman Europe, and so better understand why different local cultures adapted to Roman rule differently. For example, in many of the British archaeological sites ancient Roman styli were found. A stylus, as I found out over the course of the week, was a sharp metal object used to scratch letters on a wooden tablet covered in beeswax. Some of the other artefacts I was looking for were inkwells, seal boxes (used to protect the seals that were used on papers or bags) and wax spatulas (these were used to scrape the wax back into place on a tablet for reuse). As these were methods of writing the Romans used and introduced to Europe, the amount of these objects found in an area could indicate literacy, as well as how common Roman culture was there. The notes and locations took the form of a grand database that I had the opportunity to help fill out.

Working with Charlotte, a fellow student from Cherwell school, we also had the chance to help in curating part of the touring exhibition that is part of the project. We were given a selection of ancient artefacts to measure, weigh and photograph and record in a table. Although we had to wear glove, handling the ancient pottery and coins, with my own hands was an especially interesting and unique experience. The coins in particular were extraordinary as you could see the dents and scratches of a lifetime’s use, without having to look through a glass display case. One coin was from the rule of Marcus Aurelius and you could see the wear and tear from its use throughout his 19 years as Emperor.

Coins in tray
Four Roman coins in the LatinNow Touring Exhibition, on loan from the University of Nottingham

The last part of my work on the LatinNow project involved looking at a database of archaeological sites in the Iberian Peninsula under the guidance of Dr Noemi Moncunill, and finding the coordinates of the sites to add to the table. For instance, Torre Alta in Cadiz was one of the sites and the coordinates were 36.52 by -6.149. The end goal of this part of the project was to use the coordinates to create a geomap of Roman writing equipment to visually demonstrate how Latin spread throughout the area. Comparing this to data found in Britain will demonstrate how Latinization uniquely affected native cultures and why people took Latin up – such as status, economic success, citizenship, or literacy.”

The LatinNow and CSAD teams are very grateful to both Charlotte and Finlay for all their hard work during their time with us, and for agreeing to be our guest bloggers this month. Thanks, both! 

Later this month, on 26th October, we’re appearing in the Ashmolean Museum’s LiveFriday event ‘Spellbound’. Come and find us in the Reading and Writing Gallery to learn how to put a Roman curse on your enemies. More on this in next month’s blog!

Roman writing equipment at the Roman Archaeology Conference

I’m just starting to draw breath after a fun and busy few days in Edinburgh last week at the Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC). I’d relatively recently been in Edinburgh giving a keynote at an interesting conference on theorizing contacts in the Roman world, but that was in December and the darkness meant I hadn’t appreciated any of the striking topography and monuments that make Edinburgh so special. It’s a beautiful city! RAC was brilliantly run by Ben Russell and his colleagues and there were over 400 delegates from several different countries. It felt inclusive and international.

I was at RAC to run a panel on writing equipment for the LatinNow project. As part of our study of the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces, we are looking at archaeological finds of writing equipment as a possible proxy for Latinization. I kicked off the session with a talk which outlined the exciting scope of what we hope to do and the depressing realities (issues of identification and interpretation of material, very patchy data etc.), before going into some detail on one of our provinces, Britannia, for which we can cautiously use some pretty impressive datasets, for example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project. The results from the latter project underline the importance of road networks, status, urban centres, and the economy in the spread of literacy and Latin.

Find spots of Roman-period writing equipment from rural excavations (data from Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project, map by Michael Loy)

The second speaker was Javier Alonso from Mérida who presented both a global view of the Roman-period writing equipment from Hispania and a case-study from Emerita. His work over many years has tried to impress the importance of recognizing and publishing this material on archaeologists, museum staff and academics and shows what interesting work can be done if the material is carefully assessed in context. The third speaker was Oriol Olesti from Universitat Autònoma Barcelona who zoomed in on numerous sites in north-eastern Spain in the second and first centuries BC. The key messages from this paper were that the economy was an important driver in the uptake of literacy and that many sites, including those referred to as ‘Roman outposts’, with writing equipment seem to produce only Iberian graffiti in this period rather than Latin, which complicates the use of writing equipment as a proxy for Latinization in this area and period. I want to know more about this gap in the epigraphic record: is it ‘real’? LatinNow’s Noemí Moncunill, who was at RAC to present a poster created jointly with MJ Estarán Tolosa, will continue to work with Javier and Oriol as we try to understand the material from Hispania.

Oriol graffiti
Iberian graffiti from Ca l’Arnau (150-75 BC), a ‘Roman outpost’ (Sinner and Ferrer 2016)

Next we moved east and heard from Sylvia Fünfschilling about the fascinating material from Augusta Raurica (Augst) in the context of Roman Switzerland. Sylvia impressed on us the large number of types of object that could be used for writing, some of which were beautiful, for example this inscribed stylus, which is similar to a find from the Bloomberg excavations.

stylus Augst
Inscribed stylus from Augusta Raurica

Hella Eckardt from Reading discussed the various types of identities that may have been associated with writing equipment in the Roman world and looked particularly at the use and display of metal ink-wells across the Roman world. She highlighted the fact that writing equipment in graves of the very young could be aspirational rather than a reflection of what they had done in life. The next paper by Josy Luginbühl, Bern, followed on neatly and presented some of the material from her PhD thesis. We were treated to some intriguing examples of writing equipment deposited in Roman-period graves. Josy is interested in the fact that women are rarely directly identifiable as writers of our epigraphic materials, but appear in images with writing equipment and with this material in burial contexts. We look forward to hearing more as she continues her research! I think that more women in the Roman period are literate than we generally assume and LatinNow will be exploring this in more detail.

Colin Andrews of the Open University finished off the session with a close analysis of seal boxes, presenting the very latest finds and more evidence to back up his view that they were, in Roman Britain at least, and probably elsewhere, used to protect the seals that were used on the strings around bags which contained, e.g. money. In my view, though this means seal boxes cannot be taken as a direct proxy for literacy (we previously thought they sealed strings around stylus tablets), it does show the use of symbols and writing in administering the economic world, which, as it became increasingly complex in the Roman period, relied on literate systems for its control.

painting writing equip and coins
A wall painting from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii, showing the close association of writing and the economy

The LatinNow team is looking forward to continuing our collaboration with experts on writing equipment and is very grateful to all the speakers and the audience at RAC. We would also like to thank Alex Smith and Tom Brindle for help with the RSRB data, to Scott Vanderbilt and Michael Loy for maps and support, and to Lacey Wallace for help with PAS data.